Where Can Guns Belong?
by The Rev. Daniel P Strandlund | March 8, 2018Newsletter for Friday, March 9, 2018
Where Can Guns Belong?
Hi friends, two weeks ago I wrote about considerations Christians ought to have while discussing a topic like guns about which folks have such strong feelings. Last week I tried to focus on what guns actually are. I made the case that guns are symptomatic of human rebellion against God and God’s purposes for creation, and therefore they’re not a divine institution. Thus, it does not make sense for Christians to claim a “God-given right” to guns. If that is true, then where can guns belong, and for what reasons?
I said last week that the world doesn’t work as it should, and that we humans, not God, are responsible for this fact. This is a way of talking about original sin, a phrase which has done a great deal of damage in Christian history. Rather than understanding original sin as the constant shouting by God that humans are bad, it’s more helpful to imagine original sin as a kind of injury. We need healing and rehabilitation which only God provides. In Jesus Christ, God has performed the necessary surgery, and God has given us tools and practices to aid in our rehabilitation—things like scripture and friendship and the sacraments. But because the world is broken and we are not yet fully spiritually healthy, we find relying wholly on these difficult. Therefore, we invent other kinds of crutches with which to hobble along as we try to open ourselves to God’s mercy. Guns are one of these. If this is true, then perhaps the reaction of God to our insistence upon possessing and using life-enders isn’t so much wrath as it is a loving, if occasionally exasperated, “Oh, my little-believing ones, why do you doubt?” (See Matthew 14:31.)
On to specifics: where can guns belong? First, hunting. Our primary question here isn’t so much about guns but about eating meat. Last week I noted that, as a kind of concession to humanity in a broken world, God lets Noah and his family begin eating meat. Our consideration of hunting shotguns and rifles necessarily falls under this broader question about eating meat.
Part of the Christian hope is that God is leading all of creation into a peaceable kingdom in which even wolves lie down with lambs (Isaiah 11:6). Until then, to fulfill our purpose of ruling over and keeping creation (Gen. 1:28, 2:15), human beings must responsibly rule over a world in which teeth and claws contend with hooves and horns. Human society never exists separate from the rest of hoofed, toothy nature. Our temptation is to pretend otherwise, to remain entirely behind the city walls and never venture beyond them. This can lead to a strictly utilitarian understanding of animal life: I never see chickens as creatures God created, but only as packaged boneless chicken breasts. I risk forfeiting my human purpose of “keeping” creation, which includes safeguarding the chickenness of chickens. I risk participating in the cramming of chickens into cages so that they never actually get to scratch and peck and squawk like chickens should. Seen in this light, hunting with rifles and shotguns is far more in keeping with God’s purposes for both humanity and the animal world: when a hunter shoots a duck out at a lake, she has exerted her dominion over the duck’s life in the midst of its God-given flapping, quacking duckness. The cage-crammed chicken never really got to enjoy chickenness.
Second, military and law enforcement. Even the most violent person bears the image of God in a way that chickens and ducks not. Part of God’s purpose for humanity is to love each other (Matt. 22:39), including our enemies (Matt. 5:44). It’s difficult to see how I can love a person I am shooting at. Thus, unlike hunting, here we should expect not so much to discover how guns used against other people help fulfill our God-given purposes as human beings so much as we should hope to find practices that minimize the extent to which we forfeit that purpose. To put it another way, we must say, as Faramir does in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, “I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend.” Until we are practiced enough as Christians to trust fully in God’s promise of the peaceable kingdom, this must be our attitude: a gun, like Faramir’s sword, is a spiritual crutch we do not love for its own sake.
So, what practices help minimize our renouncing of our purpose to love each other? In 1 Corinthians 12, St. Paul uses a metaphor of the Church as a body in which each member has need of all the others. This metaphor can be helpful when applied to society at large. If society is like a human body, then not only does each part need all the other parts, but each part is also formed to serve a particular purpose on behalf of the whole. Skin, for example, is flexible and soft and secure against germs in a way that teeth are not. Why? Because skin and teeth do different things; thus, those cells form differently.
Likewise, members of our military and law enforcement agencies are formed to do particular work on the body’s behalf. The military might be like the rib cage because their job is protecting the body from outside forces that might injure it. Police officers might be like the immune system because their job is to regulate things within the body that might make it sick. The cells of the ribcage, like the members of our military, are formed to do their work. They have training, codes of conduct, boundaries, a kind of ‘DNA’ for what they can and can’t do. The ribcage is formed to enable it to protect. Likewise, the immune system, like police officers, is formed to recognize and address what is harmful within the body. There are numerous and significant problems with this analogy which I don’t have space to address, but the basic point is that the different parts of society, like organs and tissues in a body, are formed with limits and capabilities to allow them to do certain things. The whole body benefits. (Thus, it seems reasonable to suggest that many who are critical of military and law enforcement have nevertheless benefited from them.) This is of massive importance regarding guns.
Over the past couple weeks, I’ve written about my childhood friend, Russell. When Russell and I graduated from high school, he went to West Point Military Academy and eventually served in Iraq. I went to a small private college and majored in English. Like cells in different parts of the body, each of us was formed differently. He is more like the rib cage; I am more like fingers typing on a keyboard, maybe. What this means for guns is this: it is simply not the same thing for me to pick up a gun as it is for Russell to do so. Russell is practiced and formed like the ribcage; I am not. The fingers are good for typing; they are not good for protecting organs.
Therefore, in order to minimize the extent to which we forfeit our God-given purpose of loving our neighbors, including our enemies, it is reasonable to suggest that those who might potentially use guns against other human beings should be formed in the practices of physical restraint, calm decision-making in the midst of chaos, and other practices which have not formed most English majors. Until the body as a whole trusts in God’s promise of the peaceable kingdom, our societal body will continue to desire and make guns for the purpose of ending the lives of those who would harm us. It seems reasonable to suggest that these guns are more proper to some body parts than others.
Third, and finally, what of self-defense by those not formed in the practices of military and law enforcement, which is to say armed self-defense by English majors? This one is the most difficult. A story might be helpful. I once had a conversation with my friend Sam about this. Sam and his family are members of the church where I served in Montgomery. Sam is a good man, a husband and father, and like most of us, he does his best to take the Word of God seriously. He’s also someone who believes guns are important for self-defense. He and I were talking about this one day, and he said, “I guess at the end of the day, I’m just not ready to be a martyr.”
That’s the most honest thing I’ve ever heard a Christian say about guns. In that one breath, Sam admitted not only that he isn’t ready to be a martyr, but that this might actually be God’s call to people of faith in a violent world. The word “martyr” means “witness.” Because Sam is honest about the Word of God, Sam knows that the Christian life is a life of bearing witness to Christ crucified. Because he is honest about himself, Sam knows that he is not yet ready to bear witness with his own life. Sam implicitly acknowledged both that Christ crucified is the pioneer, perfector, and moral standard of Christian life, and that he (Sam), like the rest of us, is not yet ready to carry his own cross all the way.
I am not ready either, but I endeavor to be. Just as ribs and immune systems become what they are through a long process of tissue formation, and just as soldiers and police officers become what they are through a long process of formation in certain practices, Christian folks become like Jesus through practice. If we would practice the cross, then what we are signing up for is the practice of loving the people who would kill us without summoning a legion of angels (or bullets) against them. This is an extreme position, but only because the love of God in Jesus Christ is extreme. It’s a practice in fulfilling our purpose of loving God—even more than our own lives. Sam and I, and I’d wager most of you, are not yet ready. But that does not mean we should not practice readiness. Our diagnosis of not being ready is simply a way of saying that, even though God has performed the requisite surgery on us after the injury of our fall, we have not yet finished our post-op physical therapy and rehab. We just need more practice.
What does this mean for guns to be used for self-defense? Like every other kind of practice, whether it’s dieting or reading the bible, it’s best to start small. If your practice now is to be armed everywhere you go, then perhaps choose one hour a week in which you deliberately practice leaving your gun locked up at home or in your car. Once that is habitual and no longer a strain on your spiritual muscles, add a second hour. Maybe that’s how you practice little martyrdoms. Maybe that’s how you practice bearing witness to the cross.
Next week will be my last newsletter on guns. I appreciate your taking the time to read (particularly this lengthy essay). Next week I’ll address non-lethal gun uses like skeet shooting. My suspicion is that this kind of play, in which guns are co-opted for the sake of fun and community, is evidence of God’s redemption.